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When Heartbreaker Mike Campbell met a young fan, he didn't just string him along

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Griffin Black, a 14-year-old from Virginia, built a guitar and met his musical hero, Mike Campbell, lead guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

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By Griffin Black
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 14, 2010

It's not always easy being a classic rock fan while my friends are listening to rap and hip-hop, but I'll take bluesy guitar riffs and meaningful lyrics over synthesizers any day.

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I guess I should explain myself a little bit. I am 14, I live in Virginia and I love to play guitar. My interest in guitar is why I enjoy listening to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan more than more recent artists.

I have left out one key band in this list of legends, however. I'm not just a rock fan, I'm a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fan.

In January, having never seen the Heartbreakers play in person, I was enjoying YouTube videos of past performances while saying to myself, "Please don't retire! Just one more tour!" Then I stumbled upon a video labeled "Mike Campbell (All the best Bits!)." Campbell is the lead guitar player for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and in this video, which was obviously from 20 or so years ago, he walked out onstage with a brilliant red '60s Fender Telecaster around his neck. It was unlike any guitar I had ever seen. It had three pickups, where there should only be two, and a shiny whammy bar.

I wanted to learn more about this guitar, but found little. I did, however, find a video of Mike playing the guitar in the video for "Refugee" (my all-time favorite) and the guitar was called "Red Dog." It was used on the band's breakthrough album, "Damn the Torpedoes," so I had to have it. But how could I get hold of a guitar like that? It had obviously been modified several times and was not a standard Fender model. I had never built a guitar before, but I decided to build my own Red Dog.

Over the next three months I endured hundreds of eBay searches, many calls to local music stores, constant e-mails to dealers and a slow, sinking feeling in the pit of my wallet. Finally, I got everything I needed on a table: a body, a neck, two Gibson pickups, one Telecaster pickup, a pick guard, a Bigsby B5 tremolo kit and enough wires to supply electricity to my house. Three days later, I no longer had a table of parts. I had Red Dog.

But my story isn't complete; it hasn't even started yet.

An idea slapped me in the face over sushi one night: "What if Mike Campbell signed my guitar?" I had tickets for the band's upcoming tour, and that meant I would see him soon. From that point on, I could settle for nothing less than meeting the master himself. My dad helped me find Tom Petty's manager online. I punched in the number in my cellphone and waited. I quickly asked if the company managed Mike Campbell. The answer: no. DEFEAT. The lady on the phone quickly put me on hold to someone else. I stated the question again. The answer: Yes, we manage all of the Heartbreakers. SUCCESS. I quickly spat out my story, and she seemed impressed, but I knew they heard this sort of thing all the time. I got her e-mail, sent her my information, and nothing happened for a few days.

At this point, I was playing guitar with my friend at summer camp. My phone rang, and I fumbled around to find it. I picked up, and a woman named Ramona Mark (who works for Petty's manager) told me Mike Campbell and his guitar tech saw my Web site! They liked the project and wanted me to come backstage at the Philadelphia concert on July 31. By this point, I was freaking out.

Question: "Are you excited, Griffin?" Response: "Yeah." (This was all I could say on the phone and still sound composed).

I'll fast-forward a few days. It was Saturday night, and I was on a train with my dad to Philadelphia. I was about 20 minutes from Philadelphia when I received a call from Laurence Freedman, a member of the Heartbreakers staff. We decided to meet at 6:45 at a gate of the Wachovia Center. He would then take me backstage to meet Mike.

Laurence met me and led me through a doorway and down a dark staircase. I was officially backstage at a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert. The backstage reminded me of a school during summer. There were desks lying around, a cafeteria and deserted rooms. I was the only non-personnel person there, which made me feel rather special. What I was doing finally hit me. I was about to meet the greatest guitarist in the world, someone I had respected and looked up to for years.


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